Saturday, April 19, 2014

More Bone Washing In Isaan

Ghoats Containing Bone fragments

Songkran is the time of the year when people wash the bones of their departed loved ones.  This is tied into the theme of the new year being the time for cleaning.  Throughout the villages of Isaan, people clean their homes and yards as part of the Songkran celebration.  Many of the villagers also go to the local temple and assist the Monks to clean the grounds - trimming trees, raking up and burning leaves and trash.  The villagers then go to the tats which contain the bone fragments of their family members to clean and spruce them up.

I have written of the bone washing ritual for Duang's father who died in November.  His bones, at his request, were interned in a tat at the temple located amongst the sugar cane fields outside of Tahsang Village hence I refer to it as the "Outside Wat" whereas the temple located inside of the village I refer to as "Inside Wat"

The "Outside Wat" is a Dhammayuttika Nikaya monastery - a sect of Theravada Buddhism created in 1833 by Prince Mongkut of Siam.  Prince Mongkut was a Monk for a long period of time and was very learned in the ancient Pali scriptures of Buddhism.  He founded the Dhammayuttika Nikaya to be a more orthodox school - a return by the Monks to the more traditional practises of Theravada Buddhism.

The "Inside Wat" is a Maha Nikaya monastery - the older sect of Theravada Buddhism.  Dhammayuttika and Maha Nikaya devotees believe in the same things in regards to Buddhism.  Often Monks from both schools will participate in rituals together.  The differences between the two schools is that Dhammayuttika Nikaya Monks are more orthodox in their practises - such as eating only one meal a day before noon, and more focused on proper pronunciation of Pali than their Maha Nikaya brethren.

For some reason, and I am certain that it really did not boil down to how many meals a day the Monks ate before Noon, Duang's father, who was not very religious, wanted to be interned at the "Outside Wat".  For some reason, Duang prefers the Dhammayuttika Nikaya school also so she had no reservations about fulfilling her father's literal and figurative dying wish.

But just as in any other country, matters of life, death, and religion are not simple and frequently are not easy.  Duang's father's family in the area are devotees of the Maha Nikaya - the "Inside Wat" with a family tat in place with the bone fragments of Duang's grandmother and grandfather.

The interning of Duang's father at the "Outside Wat" was the cause of several discussions with Duang's Aunt who is now the mariarch of that side of the family.  Matters have been resolved and while I can not claim that the decision has been approved or even supported, it is accepted.

Because of the interning of family bones at two different wats, we had to attend two family bone washings this Songkran - one at the "Outside Wat" and one at the "Inside Wat"

Two days after the bone washing ritual for Duang's father, we returned to Tahsang Village for a bone washing ritual at the "Inside Wat" for Duang's grandfather, grandmother, and an uncle who had been a Monk at the "Inside Wat"

I often write about funerals and use the term "Same, Same but different".  This is also true in regards to bone washing rituals - although the ritual and its intent is the same, each ritual is often unique.

Whereas the ritual at the "Outside Wat" had been held outside at the base of the tat, the ritual was performed in the usobot of the "Inside Wat".

"Rocketman" Pours Water Over Bones

For this bone washing ritual, the bones contained in ghoats were first presented to the Abbott of the wat.  He poured water over the bones.  The trays upon which the ghoats were placed were then moved off  of the raised platform and placed on the floor of the bot in front of the offerings to the Monks between the Monks and the laypeople .

Offering Food to the Spirits of the Departed Relatives
A sii sein was placed from the offerings for the Monks, wrapped around each ghoat and up to the raised area where the Monks were seated.  The sii sein was held by each of the Monks with the spool of the unused cotton string carefully placed on an ordinary plate next to the Monk at the end of the row of Monks.

After the offerings had been made to the spirits, the ordinary metal serving trays were returned to the raised area off to the sides of the Monks.  The sii sein was adjusted and the odinary merit making of offering food to the Monks was performed.

The ghoats which contained the bone fragments of Duang's uncle, the Monk, were brass and pot metal.  The brass ghoat was rather sophisticated and resembled one of the chedi at the Grand Palace in Bangkok.  The pot metal ghoat resembled an embossed drinking cup.  Bone fragments from her grandparents were contained in recycled Ovaltine glass jars - not elaborate in the least but as a former boss of mine would often point out definitely "Fit for purpose".

I asked Duang if there was merit making involved in washing of the bone fragments.  She said that people did not earn merit for either themselves or the spirits of their departed relatives by the act of washing the bones but that it was good luck for the living to do so.  However the acts of offering food to the Monks did earn merit for the living as well as the dead.

After the Monks had been offered food and were eating, people gathered up the metal trays and left the bot.  Once outside they respectfully drained the water from the ghoats into the metal trays and poured the water at the base of the many trees and shrubs that grow on wat grounds.

The people then gathered together to bring the ghoats to the appropriate tat for re-internment.  Once the bone fragments had been returned and the tat door closed, people then threw cups of water over the tat to complete the ritual.

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